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Cover Story - February 2005

A New Lease

What would have been the fifth-tallest demolition in North America was scheduled after a tornado struck The Tower office building in 2000. But then the presence of asbestos saved Fort Worth's high-rise from a flattened fate.

By Lesley Hensell

The transformation of The Tower from trailblazing skyscraper to eyesore to penthouse living is almost complete.

Originally opened in 1974, the 37-story Tower, designed by John Portman of Atlanta for the Fort Worth National Bank and built by Thos. S Byrne General Contractors of Fort Worth, was one of the city's first skyscrapers, standing 454 ft. tall. It served as an office building housing hundreds of businesses over the years-until one dark and stormy night.

The memory still haunts many in the Fort Worth area. On March 28, 2000, a spate of powerful tornadoes hit the downtown area. While The Tower survived and remained structurally sound, a majority of its hundreds of windows were destroyed.

The Tower looked more like an old, abandoned warehouse than a stately skyscraper and office building. The openings were covered with plywood and metal panels, and the city began its search for a solution.

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To demolish, or not to demolish?

After detailed analysis, the answer was demolition. Refurbishing the 487,000-sq.-ft. building appeared too expensive. A date was set, and local retailers planned a festival called "Implosion 2001" to commemorate the fifth-tallest demolition job in North America.

The implosion was halted, however, after it was determined that asbestos flying from the demolition site would be too hazardous to the public. What's more, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the specter of a falling skyscraper, paired with rising demolition insurance costs, made the plan distasteful. Fort Worth was once again left staring at a boarded-up skyscraper.

"That unfortunate series of events that made this building a blight on the downtown Fort Worth landscape for so long made it available for a second life, which I think is going to be better than the first," said Brian George, principal for Dallas-based Corgan Associates, which provided the design team for the project.

TLC Realty Advisors provided the vision. The Fort Worth Company teamed up with Greenfield Partners, a Cincinnati-based fund adviser. The team envisioned converting the abandoned office tower into a multiuse structure, in keeping with similar renovations that have revitalized downtown Fort Worth over the last decade.

The team's plan included high-end apartments, condominiums, 30,000 sq. ft. of office space and 30,000 sq. ft. of retail space. The partners purchased the building and negotiated with the city, which agreed to pitch in nearly $17 million toward renovations.

"When this particular building was designed in the 1970s, the small floor plates were exactly what people wanted for office buildings," said Tony Landrum, president of TLC Realty Advisors. "As it turned out, the small floor plates were ideal for residential use. It's also a center-core type building, which you don't see much any more. But it was conducive to our plans."

Then came the asbestos removal. Eighty-four columns on each floor were coated in asbestos-laden plaster, and more than $3 million was spent to cull the hazardous material from the building. In total, abatement experts removed 23,000 lin. ft. of nonfriable pipe material, 2,000 sq. ft. of surface materials and 187,000 sq. ft. of miscellaneous regulated asbestos-containing material.

From cold office to warm residence

Once abatement was complete, architects and builders faced a significant challenge to transform the glass-and-steel, octagonal building into a warm, welcoming residence.

"I wasn't very fond of the building in its original iteration. It was a very stylized building, and it was brutal with a very sheer, stark form," George said. "It may have been an icon for Fort Worth, but it was certainly a counterpoint to the Fort Worth vernacular of architecture."

The building's structure is visible in several places on the exterior, thanks to a skeleton of concrete columns 5 ft. on center. This continuous grid was exposed to give the outside of the building texture, George said.

"On the interior units, the affect is incredibly open, despite the amount of concrete that makes up the interior walls," he said. "Because of the building's octagonal shape, a high number of the units nestle into one of the angles of the octagon. So almost all of these units have nearly 180-degree views."

The team also added lighted panels to the top of the building. The panels reflect sunlight during the day. At night, they seem to float above the roofline and give the building the appearance of being "crowned," George said.

To give the street-level entryway a warmer hospitable feel, architects planned a five-story limestone base that extends outward from the original building to the street.

"We wanted to make the building inviting to people who were walking along the sidewalk," Landrum said. "The only way to do that was to bring the building out to the street on a scale that made sense. We essentially boxed out the original atrium."

When the $65 million construction project began, the team at Turner Construction of Dallas faced an unusual obstacle. Because the building already stood 37 stories high, it was nearly impossible to move materials where they were needed.

"Our biggest challenge was to move the 400 people working on the project up and down the building in addition to the amount of material we had to move," said John Reeves, project executive for Turner Construction. "Because of the way the columns were splayed at the bottom of the tower, we couldn't put a material hoist outside."

Many materials could not fit into the building's elevators, which needed to be used for moving workers.

"I've put tower cranes on virtually every building that I've ever built, so I had to get a crane up there," Reeves said. "In the past, the crane went up with the building."

Using the elevators, Reeves and his team transported a three-ton derrick to the roof. That derrick was bolted down and used to pull up an eight-ton derrick. In turn, that derrick was used to raise a 35-ton derrick to the roof, which was mounted and used to pull up the tower crane.

"Any renovation is tough because you are working with an existing concrete structure and trying to make it do things it was not originally intended for," Landrum said. "[The original architect] over-elevated the building (too many elevators), so we were able to take some of the elevators and turn them into chases, which was critical for moving materials up and down without sacrificing leasable floor space," he added.

When Turner began work, the building was completely gutted, and its structure was sound. Glass and glazing began in January 2004. But due to a record year of rainfall, the building was not dried in until June.

"There are 888 window openings on the building, half of them curtain wall and half punched windows," Reeves said.

Between the rain and a variance on electrical wiring that had to be worked out with the city, the construction crew found itself suddenly 30 days behind schedule.

"We pressed the subs to make up the time, and the next thing we knew we were 30 days ahead," Reeves said. "Everyone concentrated on getting the job done efficiently, and we really made up some ground."

When the building owners began selling condominiums, they discovered demand for a different mix of units. And so early in the project, the planned apartments were scrapped. Instead, the building will include 291 condominiums ranging in size from 880 to 2,800 sq. ft., plus four penthouse condominiums ranging from 2,800 to 5,500 sq. ft. The change affected 10 floors of units.

"Everyone had to stop, take a deep breath and re-look at the efforts we had going in," Reeves said. "We had the machine moving, with hundreds and hundreds of people at work. All of a sudden we were trying to turn a battleship, and those don't turn on a dime. It took a couple of weeks to get reoriented."

Each unit was designed to admit natural light, a key to making former office spaces look and feel more like homes.

"The building was relatively conducive to doing exactly what we wanted to do," Reeves said. "I have to tip my hat to the design team members. Their unit plan layout allowed all of the plumbing risers to stack and the utilities to stack."

The team placed boilers, chillers, cooling towers and heat pumps for each of the 290 units. In addition to providing standard layouts, the construction team had to offer customization for each tenant.

"We started out anticipating between 300 and 400 upgrades, but ended up with 3,000 items to choose from," Reeves said.

Despite the customization and changes, Reeves expected to complete the project ahead of schedule. Units are set for delivery next month. Almost all of the building's 290 condos have been sold, with the exception of a few units that were built on spec to launch construction.

KEY PLAYERS
Owner TLC Realty Advisors, Fort Worth
General Contractor Turner Construction Co., Dallas
Architect Corgan Associates, Dallas
Electrical: System Electric Co., Plano
Mechanical Systems Dyna Ten Corp., Fort Worth
Glass and Glazing Trainor Glass Co., Fort Worth
Drywall Drywall Interiors, Dallas
Masonry: C&D Commercial Masonry, Rowlett
Painting and VWC L.H. Land Painting, Mesquite
Materials Builders First Source, Grand Prairie
Ceramic and Quarry Lyn-Tile Inc., Houston

 


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